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Friday, May 08, 2009

Cavs Crush Depleted Hawks

LeBron James scored 27 points on 9-14 field goal shooting and had five assists, three rebounds and four steals in just 31 minutes as the Cleveland Cavaliers led by as many as 36 points en route to a 105-85 game two victory over the Atlanta Hawks. James enjoyed the luxury of resting for part of the second quarter and sitting out the entire fourth quarter as Cleveland's reserves made significant contributions, led by Wally Szczerbiak's 17 points on 7-9 field goal shooting in 21 minutes. Three other Cavs scored in double figures: Mo Williams (15 points, five rebounds, five assists), Delonte West (14 points, three rebounds, three assists) and Anderson Varejao (12 points, eight rebounds, playoff career-high four blocked shots). The Cavs shot .535 from the field, outrebounded Atlanta 43-34, held the Hawks to 13 fastbreak points and outscored them in the paint 44-24.

Maurice Evans, starting in place of the injured Marvin Williams, led Atlanta with 16 points. The seldom used Thomas Gardner scored 12 points in garbage time but shot just 4-11 from the field. Mike Bibby had just 11 points on 3-8 field goal shooting. Three-time All-Star Joe Johnson scored 10 points on 5-15 field goal shooting before spraining his right ankle with 1:08 left in the third quarter; he did not return to the game and his status for game three is questionable, though he insists that he will play if it is at all possible to do so. The Cavs have completely bottled Johnson up, with West having the primary defensive assignment and the Cavs "loading up" with a big in screen/roll situations or any other time that the Hawks threaten to break Johnson loose of West, who also suffered an injury that knocked him out of action for the remainder of the game: he was inadvertently poked in the right eye by Zaza Pachulia, who only scored seven points but had a game-high 12 rebounds after starting for the injured Al Horford. Initial indications are that West will be fine and will play in game three.

Forward Josh Smith had a horrible game, finishing with eight points, one rebound and four fouls while shooting just 2-13 from the field; as he continually fired errant bricks toward the rim, I said to ProBasketballNews.com editor Sam Amico that every time Smith shoots a jumper someone should put up one of those "Pardon Our Dust/Under Construction" signs, because Smith's shooting touch definitely needs a major construction--or reconstruction--project.

The Hawks fought the Cavs solidly for about the first five minutes of the game, battling to a 12-12 tie, but the Cavs closed the first quarter with a 14-5 run and never looked back. There has yet to be a lead change after the first quarter in any of Atlanta's nine playoff games this season. Can you say, "Front-running team"? It surely must be expected that the Hawks will play with more energy when they return home for games three and four but there is little reason to believe that they can sustain the necessary level of execution at both ends of the court that it will take to beat this dominant Cleveland team; by opening this year's playoffs with six straight double digit wins, the Cavs tied an NBA record set by the 2004 Pacers. The Cavs have also won three straight playoff games by at least 20 points, tying an NBA mark set by the 1986 Lakers. The Hawks' half court offense is a mess and it obviously does not help that they are down two starters, plus Joe Johnson will be at least hobbled, if not out of the lineup altogether. The Cavs probably will not shoot as well on the road as they did in game two but they hang their hats on defense and as long as they keep playing so well on defense--and avoid turnovers that will feed Atlanta's starving transition game--the Hawks simply cannot score enough points to beat the Cavs. I predicted that the Hawks would struggle to score 85 points versus the Cavs and that the Hawks would suffer field goal droughts lasting several minutes; the Hawks scored just 72 points in game one and only reached 85 on the button in game two because of some meaningless garbage time baskets. During the first three quarters of game two, the Hawks had field goal droughts that lasted 6:18, 3:22 and 5:39. Even if the Hawks feed off of the excitement of playing in front of their home fans to build an early lead in game three, they will almost certainly hit a drought, fall behind and struggle to keep pace.

After the game, Maurice Evans candidly admitted that even if the Hawks' injured players had been healthy the outcome would not have changed because Atlanta gave such a poor effort. Josh Smith said, "This loss is embarrassing."

Meanwhile, the always classy and ever vigilant Cavs struggled to find something positive to say about the Hawks but managed to present a unified message that Atlanta is a dangerous team that came back from a 2-0 deficit last year versus Boston to push the eventual champions to a seventh game. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown always preaches that he focuses on "One day, one game at a time," while LeBron James constantly mentions the importance of getting better every game, so the Cavs will remain focused on sharpening their own tools as opposed to getting overconfident or lazy after two easy wins--Coach Brown even said with a straight face, "It may look easy but our guys are working extremely hard out there." I don't question how hard his team works, but these two wins have been about as easy as NBA playoff wins can be, so Coach Brown deserves respect for both praising the resiliency of his opponent and for doing his best to keep his team mentally prepared to do battle.

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Notes From Courtside:

After game one, Coach Brown mentioned his two main points of emphasis for the Cavs versus the Hawks. During Coach Woodson's pregame standup I asked him, "The Cavs are really emphasizing two points: keeping you off of the offensive glass and keeping you out of transition. From your standpoint of preparing your team, does that mean that you really have to place an emphasis on doing those things or are you a little bit more concerned about your half court offense?"

Coach Woodson responded, "Sure, we are better when we are out running but in order to run you have to get stops, you have to get deflections. You can't just give up points and then step out of bounds, take the ball out of bounds and think that you are going to fast break when their defense is already back set. Our defense has got to get stops and we've been pretty good; we've played eight playoff games and we're holding our opponents under 90 points, so for us defensively that is pretty good. Offensively, we've struggled because we are missing pieces. Marvin Williams is a 14 point scorer for us and we don't have access to him. Al Horford's numbers are down because he is just not healthy to move and do the things that we need him to do but, hey, now we have to rely on guys who have not played a whole lot to come in and fill that void until those guys are able to come back."

I then asked Coach Woodson, "Is 90 points your standard for good defense for your team?"

He answered, "Oh, that is excellent; I look at anything 94 and below as pretty good. But, you know, the Cavs are holding teams--nobody has scored over 80 on them. That's a big margin. That's a big differential."

The 94 number is an interesting choice, because after this win the Cavs are 20-1 since 2006 in playoff games in which they score at least 94 points.

***

Kevin Garnett made the All-Defensive Team this season despite missing 25 games due to injury. During his pregame standup I asked Coach Brown, "The coaches vote for the All-Defensive Team. I don't know if you had a chance to look at the final results but Garnett made it even though he missed 25 games this year. From your standpoint as a voter--and this does not have to be specifically about Garnett, but just in general--what do you think about voting for someone who basically missed a third of the season? No one questions that he is a great defensive player but he missed nearly a third of the season."

He replied, "If he missed most of the season then I think you would question that but to play two thirds of the season he can still have an impact on what his team does and I know that Garnett has had an impact on what his team has done at that end of the floor."

***

Mo Williams was not known as a good defensive player prior to joining the Cavs but Coach Brown said that based on talking to Williams' college coaches and looking at game film from early in his NBA career the Cavs "knew that he had the potential" to be a "pretty good defender." Coach Brown added that defense "is one of those things that is in our (team) culture, so with that being in our culture he does not want to be the odd man out. He understands that and he has done a terrific job so far this year at that end of the floor."

Coach Brown and LeBron James deserve tremendous credit for creating and maintaining that defensive "culture." Contrast what they have built in Cleveland in the past few years to the Phoenix Suns' failed attempts to run and gun their way to a championship.

***

James and the Cavs usually don't provide much bulletin board material for other teams but in his pregame standup James offered a candid--and accurate--assessment that my raise some eyebrows in Washington. The Cleveland-Washington "rivalry" the past few years has consisted entirely of the Cavs drilling the Wizards in the playoffs (until this year, when the Wizards imploded and did not make the playoffs). After someone asked James if he is concerned about lesser talented teams trying to disrupt a game versus the Cavs by resorting to some of the physical tactics recently seen in other playoff series, James said, "Washington tried that but they are not a tough team. They tried something, it didn't work and they lost in the first round once again (last year). You all know that Washington is not a physical team; they tried to be physical and they lost." It was at once comical--and pathetic--watching the Washington players hammering James because they thought that they could intimidate him and/or make him lose his composure; the Wizards just ended up looking like buffoons. Of course, Gilbert Arenas is never at a loss for words, so once he hears about James' comment Agent Zero will almost certainly fire back in some way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:57 AM

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At Saturday, May 09, 2009 1:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cleveland is doing what they've done all season, beat up on mediocre teams at home. Orlando will give them all they can handle with their passing and the Lakers will stick the fork in them.

 
At Saturday, May 09, 2009 7:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The Cavs posted the best record in the league this season and they didn't do that just by beating "mediocre teams at home." The Cavs are an outstanding defensive team.

 

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